Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: narrative structure

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips

There is one word known to strike fear into the hearts of most writers. Synopsis. Many of us would rather perform brain surgery from space using a lemon zester and a squirrel than be forced to boil down our entire novel into one page.

Yes one.

But alas we need a synopsis for numerous reasons. First and foremost, if we want to land an agent, it works in our favor to already have a FABULOUS synopsis handy because the odds are, at some point, the agent will request one.

Sigh. I know. Sorry.

A Quick Aside

When it comes to synopses, I lean toward the, ‘Better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission’ camp. This is where already having a seriously spiffy synopsis helps.

Think of it this way. E-mail is necessary, but also tedious. Getting lots of email and having to juggle it all, frankly, sucks. Agents get a lot of email. Since I’m also a person who gets a ridiculous amount of email, I LOVE people who save me work. They save me time when they save needless steps.

Most queries these days are via email and since agents don’t like getting their computers crashed by a virus? This means the query will be pasted into the body of the email (no attachments).

Believe it or not, agents like writers. In fact they need writers. They don’t get paid without a writer (who has a book). Last I checked, agents also really like being paid in money—not adorable pigmy goats. Trust me, you will only make THAT mistake once.

To Boldly Go…

So we are clear, agents need writers. Their goal is to make the authors they represent as successful as possible. When the author wins, so does the agent. This is why they’re very picky who they add to their cadre. Just as much as agents are looking for reasons NOT to read our book, they’re simultaneously looking for reasons TO read our book.

I know it’s a paradox much like time travel. Don’t think about it too long or your brain will cramp.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with ending your query with: I have taken the liberty of pasting the one page synopsis of my novel below for your convenience.

Worst case scenario? They don’t scroll down. OMG!

But best case is they DO scroll down and they like it! Better yet, you are off to an awesome start because you just saved them a crap-ton of time. Proper initiative is a great way for us (the writers) to make a good impression. Yes, agents want to discover that fabulous book, but it’s even better if that fabulous book comes with an author who makes their life/job easier.

Why Do We Need a Synopsis?

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips

If you don’t want to automatically include the synopsis that’s fine, but if you write a really good one (which IS possible if the story is strong)? Why the heck not?

All right, so what if you aren’t brave enough to include a synopsis and are praying that the subject never comes up and the agent skips all this and asks for a full. Okay, great! Problem is, if you do get a book deal, often the editor will want you to write a synopsis for the book you’re writing next (for approval of course).

Ugh, so if you go traditional, really no dodging it.

Some of you might be saying, Oh, but Kristen! Traditional is sooo yesterday and I am self-publishing. I don’t need a synopsis.

Technically correct, but actually I do recommend a synopsis for all the reasons writers loathe writing them.

Why All the Angst?

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips
Dramatization of writers off to work on a synopsis.

A big reason writers hate writing synopses with the power of a thousand suns is because we believe every word is precious and every character vital and necessary. We lack perspective, especially if we haven’t had any time or distance away from the work.

This is normal.

But a bigger reason many writers hate writing the synopsis (particularly for first-time novels) is the synopsis makes it painfully obvious we have no story or a terribly flawed story.

The synopsis strips away our pretty prose and all our verbal glitter and it lays our story bare.

Today I want to talk about the BIG PICTURE stuff. What is it our synopsis is really out to reveal? If we don’t first grasp that, no amount of tips I give for writing a great synopsis will help.

Synopsis as Skeleton

The synopsis is the skeleton of our story. What do skeletons do? They support everything else. The skeleton is the guidepost for all that is to come.

We can see the skeleton of a fish and ‘see’ the fish even without benefit of gills and scales. We can see an elephant skeleton and get an idea of scope and size and finished ‘entity/product.’

But most importantly, we don’t have to be a doctor to look at a skeleton and tell that something is horribly wrong.

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

We don’t need a lot of imagination to see how this skeleton above is going to flesh out, pardon the pun. We can see at a glance that this human skeleton is going to have a lot of problems because of the various deformities.

The same holds true with a story skeleton. If the narrative orbital sockets are located in the posterior, we don’t care how pretty the eyes are if they are in the @$$.

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips

There is no amount of witty dialogue or clever prose that is going to rescue a plot that is missing vital parts or has them in the wrong place.

Yes, we are sending a synopsis in hopes of selling a story, but how is the synopsis doing this? Plain and simple? The synopsis is letting the agent see if the skeleton is solid, symmetrical and is of a creature that is rare, cool and maybe never seen before.

Kristen Lamb, how to write a synopsis, why do writers need a synopsis, synopsis, querying an agent, how to get a literary agent, narrative structure, writing tips
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Steve Starer.

An agent is also looking at a synopsis because she knows it is the fastest way to reveal terminal (deal-breaker) errors.

***For the self-published folks. Technically you don’t need to write a synopsis, but if you can’t for any of these reasons below, the novel might not yet be good to go and this could save a bunch of nasty reviews.

Is the premise weak?

I get pages all the time from ‘finished novels’ but there actually is no story. Just because we have 80,000-100,000 words doesn’t mean we have a story. It means we have a lot of WORDS.

Is it really a novel or just melodrama?

Do we have a solid plot or is it ‘scene’ after ‘scene’ of bad situations?

Does the ‘plot’ rely on trickery? Gimmick? 

Often writers are having a panic attack about writing the synopsis because the entire book rests on a ‘clever’ twist ending that really isn’t a twist but rather a gimmick.

I.e. It was all really a bad dream.

No.

Does it require deus ex machina to resolve?

The protagonist endures plight after plight and all seems lost when she finds…………a journal!

No.

Does it actually resolve?

New writers often don’t understand structure, which naturally means they don’t yet understand that series follow similar structure guidelines to a singular novel.

***And btw, it is OKAY to be new, so breathe!

Even series still follow three act structure. But say the story follows four or even five act structure. Doesn’t matter. The story is not over until the core story problem introduced in the beginning is resolved.

Every book in a series must read as a standalone. Readers should be able to pick up Book 5 in a series and enjoy a complete story and understand what’s going on without having yet read Books 1-4.

If Book 5 blows the reader away, she’ll want to go read Books 1-4. However, if Book 5 makes no sense at all without first reading Books 1-4? We’ll pass.

We read for entertainment, not extra homework.

NO BATMAN ENDINGS.

Stay tuned for next week book!

Often I get, Oh well the reader will have to read the next book to know if she lives. Nope, not how that works unless we write for Days of Our Lives.

No matter the structure we use, our story must come equipped with a satisfying resolution, or that story is missing legs.

In the case of a connected series, often a gatekeeper to the Big Boss is defeated but the journey continues toward that final showdown. No being clever by withholding a resolution.

Is the writer breaking genre constrictions in unforgivable ways?

For instance, romance comes with an HEA (happily ever after) or the more modern HFN (happily for now). No HEA/HFN? It ain’t romance.

If the author is selling the manuscript as romance in the query, but the story ends in a breakup? The agent knows this is a new writer who doesn’t understand genres have rules and expectations.

Is the story just not all that remarkable?

Once the plot is laid bare, is it truly anything unique? A fresh twist on an old idea? Or is it really more of the same?

My book is about a thirty-eight-year-old female executive who decides she wants to have a baby and the struggle of being an older mom.

Okay *falls asleep*.

My book is about a thirty-eight-year-old female executive who finds out she’s pregnant with her first child at the same time her teenage stepdaughter reveals she, too is expecting.

*perks up* Hmmm, interesting.

The Good News

When we can write a concise and interesting synopsis, it shows our level of skill and the strength of our story. If we can write tight and clean here, it bodes well for the book. If your brain is in knots writing your synopsis, relax.

If the story is there the synopsis is too. It’s only a matter of unearthing it.

I love hearing from you!

(And am not above bribery.)

What are your thoughts? Have you been struggling with the synopsis and think it’s because there might be bigger issues going on? Are you a more seasoned writer and remember the nightmare of trying to fit a first-time “novel” into a single page? Any thoughts? Questions? Suggestions?

What do you WIN? For the month of April, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Heads Up! If you need help, on May 3rd 7-9 EST I’m teaching Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS.

****Free recordings are included with all classes.

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, after reading this post, you now know why this is a valuable skills all writers should learn.

Also NOW OFFERING…

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is two hours long, 90 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

***A free recording is included with purchase.

General Admission is $40 and there are some SUPER COOL upgrades! Get your spot HERE.

 

MORE CLASSES!

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend:

ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. 

Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get BOTH Plot Boss and Art of Character in the…

Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND).

Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

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Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

Genre is a word that makes a lot of new writers cringe. Many (mistakenly) believe any kind of boundaries will somehow impair or restrict creativity and crater imagination. This is why so many emerging authors (myself included) avoid learning about structure or how to plot until forced to…at gunpoint.

Fine! Yes, I’m being melodramatic, but close enough to the truth.

It’s easy to understand why we want to skip all that boring stuff. We’re eager to write, to create, to unleash the muse! Yet, in our haste, we can lose sight of what we stand to gain by truly understanding the fundamentals and respecting boundaries.

For any author who wants to eventually sell enough books to make writing a full-time occupation, genre is one of our greatest allies.

Genre Dictates Location

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

Location, location, location. Yes, I remember being a neophyte, breaking out in hives when anyone mentioned I needed to choose a genre *shivers*. My book wasn’t a genre, it was all genres. It was a novel everyone would love. I didn’t need something as prosaic as…genre.

Yes, I was a clueless @$$hat so y’all can already feel better about yourselves. When we’re new, obviously we don’t understand the intricacies of the publishing profession. Why? BECAUSE WE ARE NEW.

***By the way, it is okay to be new. We all begin somewhere. Stephen King didn’t one day hatch as a mega-author.

Before we even get to how genre impacts story, we must remember publishing is a business. Many of you long to submit to an agent in hopes of a sweet contract with the Big Five. Great! You yearn to see your books on a shelf in a bookstore. Wonderful! Me too. *fist bump*

So where would the bookstore shelve your novel?

This is a critical question all writers must be able to answer. Ideally, we need to know our genre before we ever begin writing the novel, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment. But first…

Genre Lands Book Deals

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Meh…there are better ways.

If we want to publish traditionally (legacy) the first step—beyond finishing the book, obviously—is landing an agent. Writers who take the business seriously research agents ahead of time because this is a partnership.

We don’t want just any agent, we want the right agent. Conversely, agents aren’t looking for any book, they’re on the hunt for books they can sell.

Most agents have a list of the sort of books they’re in the market to represent (which genre). Thus, if an agent’s bio states she’s looking for Young Adult and New Adult novels, we’re wasting her time and ours by querying our Middle Grade series. By doing a bit of research, we can locate agents who’ll be the ideal fit.

Agents create these wish lists for a reason. They know publishers all have wish lists, too. The agent’s job is to pay attention to those wish lists and hustle to deliver the goods. Their goal is to sell our book to a publisher and negotiate the sweetest deal possible for us (the author), because this benefits them, too.

Agents pay attention to the publishers’ shopping lists. If the publishers are no longer wanting Dystopian YA novels, the agent then knows that trying to sell the next Hunger Games is a fruitless endeavor.

Even if our book IS the next Hunger Games, agents won’t rep it because they already know they’re highly unlikely to sell it.

Genre Sells Books

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Now, traditional publishers might reject a certain genre for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the book. Maybe they’ve already filled the X amount of slots reserved for a Dystopian YA. They don’t want to oversaturate the market. Perhaps Dystopian YA is not selling like it used to because Steampunk YA is picking up steam *bada bump snare*.

Thus, if you have an amazing Dystopian YA, you can go indie (if they’re open to representing it) or self-publish. Genre is still incredibly important because when we list our book for sale on-line, again, we have to tell Amazon (and other on-line distributors) where our story belongs.

Major publishers do, too.

Genre will directly impact metadata and will serve as a guide for keyword loading within the product description. Genre and the associated keywords will also influence which books are listed alongside ours (or vice versa). When we look up Gone Girl, we see…

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

This is how on-line retailers help readers find books they’re likely to enjoy more easily.

Genre Draws Fans

This is one of the reasons we really don’t want to write a novel totally unlike ANY other. The story never before told is a unicorn, first of all. It doesn’t exist.

Also, a novel that can’t be fit into any genre is unlikely to draw fans. Whether readers are browsing a bookstore or browsing on-line, they generally know what sort of books interest them and head that direction.

If they’ve just finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and they’ve read all of Flynn’s other books and want to read more books LIKE hers, genre is the flashing arrow pointing readers to similar novels (and authors).

This is a fantastic way for authors who aren’t yet household names to be discovered. Fans of the genre can then evolve into fans of that author.

Because readers can discover our work on a shelf or on-line, our odds of selling more books vastly improves.

This isn’t rocket science. People are unlikely to buy something they a) don’t even know exists or b) can’t find.

Genre Builds Brands

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

As Cait mentioned in her post on best practices for publishing success, genre focus is a major factor in becoming a successful author. When we focus on a specific genre we build an author brand and cultivate a devoted fan base far faster.

A qualifier here, though. Just because we write a Psychological Thriller doesn’t mean we must only write Psychological Thrillers forever and ever. Often genres have ‘kissing cousins’ and, so long as we remain within that general genre region, it’s all good. Suspense, Mystery, Thriller, Sleuth, are close enough to count.

Once we’ve published enough books, built a solid brand and cultivated a large devoted fan following, then we gain more freedom to try something new.

Genre Helps Plotting

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When we choose any genre, there are certain reader expectations. Once we know what’s expected, we can then deliver what readers want. We also have a better idea how to plot. If we don’t understand how/why a thriller is different than a suspense, that’s a problem.

Let’s use these ‘kissing cousin’ genres as an example…

A thriller has large (global) stakes on the line. In the beginning a bad thing happens and it is a race against time to stop the MASSIVE bad thing by the end.

For instance, Lee Child’s debut novel Killing Floor is about a former MP-turned-drifter thrust by fate into a problem with global consequences. Reacher’s goal is to stop bad guys’ plan to inundate the market with counterfeit bills (which would destabilize the U.S. economy).

A suspense has more intimate stakes. In Thomas Harris’ book The Silence of the Lambs, the goal is to find and stop Buffalo Bill from murdering Size 12 women for his ‘woman suit.’ Ideally, Agent Starling will stop Buffalo Bill before the latest victim (a senator’s daughter) is killed. The stakes, however, are not global.

The F.B.I.’s image is at risk, Starling’s career is on the line, the latest victim’s life is in jeopardy, but overall?

Skinny girls are totally safe.

When we understand the dictates of a genre, we can plot better and also know what we’re selling (to agents, publishers, and readers).

Genre and Structure

Since this week is my birthday and the week I am re-launching my novel, The Devil’s Dance I’m going to indulge 😀 .

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My precious…

I’ve been blogging for a while about structure, and we’ll deep dive the different types of structure and how to use them and why and when more in another post. All have pros and cons.

Some structures are better suited for certain genres. When we know what genre we are writing, then selecting the perfect framework becomes easier.

The most well-known and widely read is the traditional three-act Aristotelian structure. This story structure works as well today as it did a couple thousand years ago. My debut novel is a mystery-suspense and I used traditional three-act structure and ALL THE COLORS!

Why THAT Structure?

I chose this straight-forward structure because, for me, it was the best scaffolding for the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to craft a story that blended the humor of a Janet Evanovich with the gritty edge of a Dennis Lehane. I’d always joke that my book was Legally Blonde meets Killing Floor. Since I was already being ‘creative’ with the KIND of story I was telling, I felt it best to not also try to be creative with structure as well.

***No novel quadruple axel for me, thanks.

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

I wrote The Devil’s Dance purely to entertain. The sort of novel one might inhale on vacation, or when stuck in an airport. Fun, gritty, straightforward and a very fast read. Since I wanted it to be a quick read, linear structure was ideal.

Yet, maybe we want to offer the reader a challenge beyond what straightforward linear structure can offer. This is when we might select a non-linear structure. A fantastic example of this is Into the Water by Paula Hawkins, which is also a mystery-suspense.

Kristen Lamb, genre, why genre is important, The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, narrative structure, publishing, how to get an agent, how to get a publishing deal, genre and structure, how to find readers

Granted there are at least nine POVs and shifts in time ranging from the 17th century all the way to the 21st. The time shifts and different POVs delivered red-herrings galore. For mystery fans who want a challenge?

This book definitely is a brain-bender.

Keep in mind, though, that the downside to non-linear structure is readers can easily become confused, bored or lost. Good thing Paula Hawkins is a master storyteller, just sayin’. I’m on my third pass through to catch what I missed.

In the End

Genre is incredibly helpful in a vast number of ways. We can know and meet (then exceed or challenge) reader expectations. Since we know what fans want, we can serve them something they want or even something they never KNEW they wanted (I.e. Harry Potter). Knowing the story we long to tell helps us plot faster, since the objectives are clearer.

Once our story is complete, we know how to query our novel and to whom. Also, when the book is finally published, genre helps readers find our books!

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft, and next time we’ll resume talking abut structure. Those new to my blog, I hope you’ll check out this series. Look to the column over there–>

Need More Help? I Live to Serve….

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

I’m offering The Art of Character (March 22nd 7-9 EST). More advanced material, and lots of FUN! Just because we’re tackling advanced material, doesn’t mean we can’t make it a party. As always, recording is included with all classes FREE of charge 😉 .

Also, my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist is a great follow up, and this class will help you plot faster and tighter than ever. It’s being held March 29th (7-9 EST).

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of March, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters
Image courtesy of Kevin Wood via Flickr Creative Commons

I put in a lot of work and study when it comes to honing my writing skills. This means I’m always searching for ways to become a stronger author and craft teacher. Want to get better at anything? Look to those who are the best at what they do and pay close attention.

This said, wanting to deepen my understanding of drama, I enrolled in David Mamet’s on-line course for Dramatic Writing (which has been superlative). In one of the lessons, Mamet said something that challenged my thinking regarding characters.

I won’t directly relay what his assertion was because it’s very much a class worth taking, and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone. Regardless, his commentary regarding character creation made me extremely uncomfortable.

At first, I balked. Big time. Challenging ideas do that.

I thought, Yes, well Mamet’s referring to stage and screen. With written fiction we have narrative. Actors don’t possess this.

Which IS true, yet Mamet’s unconventional opinion stopped me long enough to give his angle some serious consideration. Did his assessment relate to our sort of fiction?

Craft Crossover? 

Written form stories hold some major advantages, the largest of those being internal narration. The audience knows what’s going on in the head of the character (or can believe they know).

On stage or screen, it’s up to the actors’ abilities to accurately portray the internal, which is a tough order. It’s also why if a book is made into a movie, watch the movie first.

Otherwise…

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This largely has nothing to do with the quality (or lack thereof) regarding the play/film. Internal narrative allows for a far more intimate psychic distance that is ONLY possible in the written form.

The medium is different and thus should be judged differently…though we still gripe the book was WAY better.

Stage and film rely on the screenplay which is very BASIC. It’s all dialogue and up to the director’s vision and the actors’ talent. Character creation for stage and screen cannot help but differ from written form, yet by how much? What can we learn from our sister mediums?

****Other than Sister Mediums is a way better reality show concept than Sister Wives? #SquirrelMoment

Character Creation

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters
Image courtesy of Kevin Wood via Flickr Creative Commons

I thought back over works I’d edited, earlier stories of my own and had a moment of revelation. Why were some characters so flat? As interesting as some form-molded widget popped off on an assembly line?

Conversely, what made other characters almost come ALIVE?

What was the X-factor?

Now that I’ve noodled this, I’ve revised some of my thinking. Multi-dimensional characters are not something writers can directly create. Rather, these lifelike people are forged from the crucible of story.

Dramatic writing uses a core problem (fire). The core problem generates escalating problems (the hammer). The trials (increasing heat/hammering) reveal, refine, define, and ultimately transform the narrative actors into characters.

Story alone holds the power to bestow resonance.

Fill-In-The-Blank People

Sure, we can do all the activities of filling out a character profile. But, these character sheets alone are about as telling as a ‘fill-in-the fields-profile’ on a dating site. Height, weight, build, nationality, attractiveness, education level, how many kids, previously married, hobbies, etc.

Dating profiles also provide blank spaces for additional ‘deep, character-revealing statements’ such as: I’m not a game-player, love Mexican food, and my favorite activities are crossfit and hiking.

FYI: ALL of that is likely a lie (other than enjoying Mexican food). Anyone who starts with I am not a game-player is almost guaranteed to be a game-player. It’s Shakespeare’s Rules of Romance. Or, as I call it, ‘The Lady/Dude Doth Protest Too Much’ litmus.

Anyway…

No School Like Old School

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters
….or not.

Do I create character profiles? Sure. I also put a lot of thought and research into what ‘people’ I want to cast in a given story. It’s a great activity, but be careful. We can’t camp there. Activity and productivity are not synonymous.

Ultimately, fictional characters reflect the real human experience in a distilled and intensified form. This, however, doesn’t give an automatic pass on authenticity.

Aristotle might be Old School, but his observations regarding drama resonate even into the 21st century. In Aristotle’s Poetics he asserts:

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. ~Aristotle

This gives three schools: Polygnotus (more noble), Pauson (less noble), and Dionysius (real life).

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Even today these three schools of story thought are alive and well. Marvel’s Captain America movies proffer the larger-than-life hero, the man better than real men (Polygnotus).

Westworld and Game of Thrones provide a vast assortment of villains who are worse-than-life, an exaggeration of evil (Pauson).

Then, movies like Training Day or Glengarry Glen Ross show men as they really are…flawed. They’re not entirely noble or ignoble (Dionysis).

Granted, this is a vast simplification, but we can see novels fall into these schools as well. Genre dictates a lot of this. Harry PotterThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and A Man Called Ove could reasonably be placed in each category.

Talk is Cheap

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Why do I mention these ‘schools’ of story? Depending on genre, readers will have expectations when it comes to what they’ll find entertaining. As writers, our primary job is to entertain. This said, stories are for the audience. This means we need to either serve them what they enjoy, or serve them what they don’t yet know they will enjoy 😉 .

As a general ‘rule,’ readers who gravitate to stories like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy are fundamentally different than readers who prefer stories like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. What readers are looking for—regarding story and characters—will be specific to the genres they gravitate to.

It’s critical to define what kind/flavor of story we want to tell, because an idea can be delivered any number of ways (parodies prove this).

Also, telling a story audiences don’t yet know they will love must work with the boundaries of preference. Take the boundaries and push them or deliver them in a new, fresh way.

J.K. Rowling didn’t completely ignore reader expectations and preferences for YA fantasy. She merely delivered her stories in a brand new way. She cast a boy (Harry Potter) as her lead protagonist.

At the time, the YA fantasy world was dominated by female protagonists. The genre’s audience expected one approach, but only because they didn’t yet realize they’d LOVE something else. An unwanted boy living under the stairs, unaware he’s a wizard destined for greatness.

Talk the Talk & Walk the Walk

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Earlier, I mentioned character backgrounds. These are a good start, but they’re only that. A start. Characters aren’t who we (the writer) say they are. Characters are composed of what they do or don’t do.

Go back to my analogy of an on-line dating profile. Someone can talk a great game on some dating site. Yet, it won’t be until that first awkward meet at a coffee shop—in person—that this profile is put to any real test.

Sure, he might say he’s a nice guy and have loads of pics of him with puppies and kids. But, how does he respond when the barista knocks a scorching hot venti Americano all over his best shirt? Does he laugh it off and try to calm the hysterical barista? Or, does he throw a fit, demand the barista be fired, and threaten to sue?

She might claim she longs for friendship and intimacy in her profile. But, at coffee, how often is she checking her phone? Her Facebook? Does she engage and listen, or does she have the attention span of a goldfish with severe ADD…who just smoked some crack?

Same in Stories

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We can tell the reader a character is a certain way, but how that character acts matters more. For instance, I did an edit not too long ago and the writer said the female protagonist was a strong alpha female. Problem was, the MC didn’t act like one. I called the writer on the lack of continuity.

This is part of what we (editors) mean when we use the phrase, ‘Show, don’t tell.’

The writer can TELL me (the reader) all she wants how this character is an alpha take-no-prisoners gal, which the writer did in the set-up. Fair enough. But three pages later, when this alleged ‘alpha female’ is essentially begging for a chance at contract? I called FOUL. If she’s an alpha personality, then she needs to act like it. Actions speak louder than words.

We can TELL readers a character is anything, yet how that character acts is all that matters.

Talk is cheap and, adding to that…

Humans Are Liars

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*hangs head* Yep. Probably.

We’re all liars. We might lie to others (to one degree or another). Mostly, though, we lie to ourselvesWow, the dryer really shrank my pants!

No judgement. Goes with being human.

We all want to believe if something horrific happened, we’d act heroically. Maybe we would. But, perhaps not. We all want to believe we’d NEVER do X (kill, run, hide), but there’s only one way to know for certain.

Trial by fire.

Problem is, what we believe about our own character (integrity or lack thereof) is all theory until we’re faced with some crisis that puts that belief to the test. Only a test can reveal our belief as truth, half-truth, or a lie (self-delusion). Crises show us what we are made of (or not).

The hero-in-his-own-mind may, when faced with an actual trial, turn out to be a complete coward. Conversely, the person who wholly believes she could never be heroic might, in reality, be the most heroic of all.

It’s the same with characters in a story.

Character Crucible

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Structure (story) acts as the crucible and how we put the story together is what steadily turns up the heat on all parties involved. Next time we’ll focus in on the components of story, the scene and the sequel. But here’s a preview and how it relates to character.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, an invaluable resource which I recommend every writer buy and study).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Notice how the scene presents the problem, which then provides a way we (readers) can witness how a character acts/responds externally.

The sequel permits audience access to the internal. We can peer into the thoughts of that character. This is where we’ll witness how a character evolves/or devolves over time. For bonus points, internal narrative—in scene and the sequel—is a fantastic way to mess with readers’ heads (I.e. the unreliable narrator).

In the End

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Everyone has his or her version of the truth, but we as writers must tangibly demonstrate this. This means, when we strengthen the story, this automatically can strengthen the characters.

Everything in dramatic writing is and should be intentional. No extra screws or bits. Granted, practice will make us all better at this, but in great stories there are NO free rides. Period. No thought, setback, bit of setting, snippet of dialogue is there to simply take up space.

It ALL serves a vital/integral purpose.

And, if any character’s actions do not line up with who we (the writer) says he is? It better be intentional 😉 .

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering The Art of Character (March 22nd 7-9 EST). Advanced material, lots of FUN! Who better to teach character THAN a character? LOL.

I’m also offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 29th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. Both are advanced-level material to take your writing to another level.

What Are Your Thoughts?

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters

Is the saying, ‘Show, don’t tell‘ making a bit more sense? Can you see how problems are the ONLY way to really deliver character? How actions can be used in all sorts of ways, even as a way of misleading the audience for WHAMMO twist endings?

Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of March, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

***February’s winner is Gabriella L. Garlock. Please send your 5,000 word Word document in a doc.x file, double-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font, one-inch margins to kristen @wana intl dot com. Congrats!

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!

You can sign up HERE!

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Every story begins with an idea. Alas, stories can only be created when at least two vastly different ideas collide. The place where they meet is the BOOM, much like the weather. Storms erupt because two very different bodies of air meet…and don’t get along.

Only one will win out. In the meantime, lots of rain, lightning strikes and maybe some tornadoes. After the powerful storms, the landscape is altered, lives are changed, some even lost.

It’s the same with powerful stories. Yet, instead of weather fronts colliding, differing ideas are colliding.

It’s wonderful to have a great story idea. Alas, an idea alone is not enough. It’s a solid start but that’s all. Loads of people have ‘great ideas’ and that and five bucks will get them a half-foam latte at Starbucks.

Ideas are everywhere.

What differentiates the author from the amateur is taking the time to understand—fundamentally—how to take that idea and craft it, piece by piece, into a great story readers love.

Building Ideas into Stories

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Stories have key components required for building, and I promise we’ll get there. My goal, this go-round has been to elevate the teaching and deep-dive in a way I hope you’ve not experienced before.

I always found craft teaching either was so simplistic I was all, ‘Got it, sally forth.’ *taps pen* Or, the instruction was so advanced (assuming I was far smarter than I was) and it made me panic more than anything.

Like the ‘write your story from the ending.’ Sure, meanwhile, I’ll go build a semi-conductor.

There was this MASSIVE gap between X, Y, Z and why I was even doing X, Y, and Z. Why not Q?

And all to what end? How did I make all the pieces FIT? *sobs*

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Anyway, this is why we’re taking things SLOWLY. I want to fully develop these concepts so you can create incredible stories far more easily. Yes, this is master class level stuff, but hopefully I will help mesh with 101 concepts so even beginners will feel challenged (as opposed to utterly LOST like I did).

For those new to this blog or anyone who wants to catch up, here are the lessons so far:

Structure Matters: Building Stories to Endure the Ages

Story: Addictive by Design

Conflict: Elixir of the Muse For Timeless Stories Readers Can’t Put Down

The Brain Behind the Story: The Big Boss Troublemaker

Problems: Great Dramatic Writing Draws Blood & Opens Psychic Wounds

How to Write a Story from the Ending: Twisted Path to Mind-Blowing End

Ideas as Character Catalyst

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When we discussed the BBT, I showed how all BBTs are an IDEA. This IDEA might manifest as a villain or as a core antagonist. The core antagonist only different from a villain in that this person’s goal is not inherently destructive, evil or nefarious. Their idea(s) simply conflicts with what the protagonist’s idea(s) and what the MC believes he/she desires.

This antagonist generates a core story problem BIG enough to shove the protagonist out of the comfort zone and into the crucible. This pressure (problems) creates heat which is the catalyst that creates the cascading internal reaction which will fundamentally alter the protagonist.

These internal changes are necessary for victory over the story problem via external action (choices/decisions). The MC cannot morph into a hero/heroine carrying emotional baggage, false beliefs, or character flaws present in the beginning. Why?

Because these elements are precisely WHY the MC would fail if forced to battle the BBT head-on in the opening of the story.

The story problem, and what it creates, is like a chemical reaction. Our protagonist, by Act Three should transform into something intrinsically different…a hero/heroine (a shining star instead of a nebulous body of gas). The problem should be big enough that only a hero/heroine is able to be victorious.

Villains as BBT

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Villains are fantastic and make some of the most memorable characters in fiction whether on the page, stage or screen (Joker, Buffalo Bill, IT, Dr. Moriarty, Cersie Lannister, etc.). A common misperception, however, is villains are ‘easy’ to write. No, mustache-twirling caricatures are easy to write. But villains, villains that get under our skin, who poke and prod at tender places take a lot of preparation and skill.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is extremely dimensional. We, the audience, are conflicted because he’s horrible, grotesque, cruel… and suddenly we find ourselves rooting for him.

That seriously messes with our heads.

Dr. Lecter has an IDEA of polite society. Act like a proper human and be treated like one. His IDEA of what a human is entails all that separates us from animals, namely manners and self-control. Act like a beast, and beasts–>food.

This cannot help but conflict with any FBI agent’s duty to protect all lives (deserving or not), and help mete out justice in all homicides (even of those horrible folks we’re all secretly happy Hannibal made into a rump roast).

All I can think is thank GOD Lecter is fictional or half the folks on Facebook would now be curing world hunger.

Anyway….

Superb characters are never black and white, right or wrong because that’s an inaccurate reflection of humanity.

We (the audience) sense the falseness of such a simplistic character, and, while one-dimensional characters (villains included) can be amusing for a time, they’re not the sort of character that withstands the test of time. They don’t possess enough substance/dimension/gray areas to elicit heated debate and discussion among fans for years to come.

But villains are not ideal for all stories or all genres.

Core Antagonist as BBT

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There are what people call character-driven stories which don’t require a villain. I twitch when I hear the term ‘character-driven’ because too many mistake this as a pass for having to plot. NOPE. We still need a plot 😉 .

Plot is what will drive the character change.

I’ve used the examples Steel Magnolias and Joy Luck Club in other posts so we’ll pick a different one today. The Mirror Has Two Faces is one of my favorite examples.

The BBT in this story is the IDEA that physical beauty is bad. This IDEA is manifested in the story problem, which is created by Professor Gregory Larkin. He believes he knows why he’s always been unlucky in love.

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He’s attracted to her…mind.

Being an analytical Mathematics teacher at Columbia he gets a bright idea. He believes superficial attraction and sex is what has ruined all his relationships (and is partially correct).

He theorizes that physical attractiveness always undermines authentic intimacy. Thus, he postulates a solution. Find and date a woman he finds completely physically unappealing. Then he’ll find true love (Story Problem).

Enter in Professor Rose Morgan, a shy, plain, middle-aged professor who teaches literature also at Columbia. Ah, but Rose also happens to have a stunning older sister and a mother who was model-gorgeous in her heyday, a mother who always has to be the center of attention.

Gregory Larkin believes he can only find love without physical beauty, that physical attraction has only a bad ending.

Close, but No Cigar

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Rose Morgan also has issues with beauty, though is not actively aware of it initially. Her mother’s obsession with her own beauty has propelled Rose to demur and become a wallflower. She dresses in frumpy clothes, wears no makeup, doesn’t exercise and does nothing with her hair.

Namely, she doesn’t want to compete with Mom. Mom’s distorted overvaluation of physical beauty has created an equally distorted devaluation of physical beauty in Rose.

When Larkin asks Rose out and the relationship blooms enough for them to marry, it seems his theory is sound. Rose wants to believe she’s okay with this. That she is okay that she was picked because she was utterly unattractive on the outside.

Sure, it stings, but in the end, does it matter? They are close, share similar interests, enjoy each other’s company and she’s no longer terminally single.

Only once married, does Rose realize she’s sold herself short in a big way.

She didn’t believe she longed for Puccini and romance and lust and for a man (her husband) to want her. That was for ‘pretty girls’ and she was lucky to even be picked at all. Right?

Right?

Wrong

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One night, Rose presses Gregory for sexual intimacy and he freaks out. He rejects her advances, and is angry at her for upsetting his tidy formula for lasting love.

This crushes Rose.

Rose believes she repulses him, but is very wrong. He did want her, probably more than any woman ever before. Yet, he still clings to his false IDEA. He remains undeterred that physical attraction/relations will ruin true love. He leaves right after this disastrous night for a lengthy lecture tour.

Rose finally faces her fear of being pretty and her false beliefs that she a) is not pretty and b) does not deserve to be pretty. She cleans up her diet, gets her hair done, changes her wardrobe and wears makeup. She feels differently and notes others treat her differently, too.

Gregory also does some soul-searching and starts pondering he might be wrong. Maybe outer beauty does not instantly negate inner beauty. Perhaps beauty, physical attraction, lust wasn’t the problem. He was.

Maybe.

Showdown Between the Ideas

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Gregory returns to NYC and sees Rose has bloomed. She’s a very different wife inside and out. Not only is she stunning, but she’s now confident and knows what she wants, what she deserves.

She apologizes for her part in the problem. Confesses she never should have agreed to a passionless marriage. She thanks him for helping her see her own cowardice, but in truth she wants passion and Puccini, love and sex and more than marriage melba toast.

Gregory is dumped…again.

This forces him to take a hard look at himself and his ‘theory.’ He’s forced to choose between his ‘flawless theory of perfect love’ or Rose.

Will he let Rose dump him and go in search of an even more physically unattractive female? Or will he ditch his theory and woo Rose back?

Ideas as Weather Fronts

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What happens when a cold front meets with a hot front? A STORM! Same in stories. This is why it’s critical to understand the BBT and the proxy carrying out the idea. It’s why it’s just as vital to understand the protagonist and his or her IDEA to be challenged.

Like in weather the colder and drier the cold front and the hotter and moister the hot front, the bigger the BOOM.

Thus once you’ve selected the IDEAS that will clash and what sort of characters will serve as the delivery mechanisms, make sure to choose who will suffer/change the most. The higher the stakes the better the story.

Also ask (for both sides):

What does he/she want? Why does he/she want it? Why now? What happens if he/she fails to get what they want?

When we articulate these and craft these ahead of time, we can make sure to pack as much punch into the plot as possible. No reader wants to invest 12-15 hours into a story where there are low stakes or no stakes. Where no one changes. ZZZZZZ.

Y’all might laugh, but I’ve edited many a work with no stakes. When I asked the writer, ‘What happens if she doesn’t find out the secret?’ Usually, I got, ‘She um…just doesn’t?’

Nope. That isn’t a story, it’s a sedative.

À la fin…

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Ennui Cat says love is for fools and brings only pain. He’s judging your book…and you.

But mostly you.

In the end, think how many weather metaphors we use when talking about people and conflict. A storm’s brewing. Lightning rarely strikes twice. Could feel the crackle in the air.

If conflict is thought of like storms, then reverse engineer this. How do storms work? What makes them bigger and nastier? Use this to help add power to your plot problem.

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 29th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. This class is for in-depth training on how to balance all types of antagonists for maximum impact.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Does this help make plotting a tad less intimidating? Are you perhaps seeing where/why your previous idea floundered? Didn’t realize you needed at least TWO for a story?

Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of March, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

***Will announce February’s winner next post.

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below.

NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!

Check them out at W.A.N.A. Int’l.

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Problems are the essential ingredient for all stories. All forms of dramatic writing balance on the fulcrum of problems. The more problems, the better. Small problems, big problems, complicated problems, imagined problems, ignored problems all make the human heart beat faster.

Complication, quandaries, distress, doubt, obstacles and issues are all what make real life terrifying…and great stories captivating.

Face it, we humans are a morbid bunch. Most of us see flashing emergency lights on a slick highway, and what do we do? We slow down to see…while deep down desperately hoping we don’t see. We sit in a fancy restaurant and a woman throws a glass of red wine in her date’s face? Oh, we ALL pay attention.

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Screeching tires, glass breaking or even a spouse on the phone muttering Uh-oh and our chest cinches. We must know what’s going on. Humans require resolution in order to return to our ‘happy’ homeostasis, even if deep down we know that ‘resolution’ is a lie. Delusion is inherently human, and so is neurosis which is good news for writers.

Can you say ‘job security’? *wink wink*

Humans Wired for Drama

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If we take a moment to ponder people, it makes sense why problems make for excellent stories. First, all humans are wired for survival, thus any potential threat to survival makes us pay attention. We’re biologically designed to be egocentric. Thus survival is not a problem, it’s a given. It’s also why this conversation makes my left eye twitch:

Me: So what is your protagonist’s goal?

Writer: To survive.

Me: *face palm*

Survival is Not Story

Here’s the deal. We ALL have a goal to survive. If, at the end of the day, I am NOT DEAD? I consider that a pretty good day. My genetic desire to survive is why I don’t blow dry my hair in the shower, take up bear-baiting, or see how far I can drive backwards on a highway.

Survival isn’t interesting. Whatever threatens survival? That’s what’s interesting.

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Secondly, humans possess a deep compunction to assign order in a world brimming with chaos. Remember our first lesson, when we discussed cause and effect? Our desire for order is directly related to survival. If we believe A + B = C, then when A +B =Z, we’ll drive ourselves nuts to know why.

What changed? Did we do, say, think something differently? Does this deviation mean anything? Is it dangerous?

Every superstition ever imagined hinges on human desperation for order and control.

We won the game when I didn’t wash my underwear and lost when I wore clean ones. Dirty underwear=winning. 

Thirdly, humans are innately selfish. This proclivity for selfishness makes us all psychically vulnerable. For instance, we develop neuroses of varying degrees of severity. Neuroses, fundamentally, are false beliefs regarding cause and effect.

I smiled at the clerk and she was extremely rude. So it is true. People don’t like me.

Or, the clerk caught her boyfriend in bed her mother minutes before heading to work and—in truth—we (the neurotic customer) have nothing to do with her bad attitude. Aside from being in the blast radius of the poor clerk’s Jerry Springer drama.

Chaos Abounds

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When we factor in that humans a) are wired to survive b) crave order and c) are innately selfish, it makes sense why we are a story species. Stories are what discharges that leftover psychic energy left over at the end of every day.

Life rarely makes perfect sense, but stories do. Reality has no set order, but stories do. Every day bad guys win, good people die, and ‘stuff’ happens for no apparent reason which freaks us out.

These are the main reasons why stories are the balm that eases our jagged thoughts and weary heart. In well-written stories, we might not like the outcome, but it makes sense. The play or movie might not set well, but there is integral order. In dramatic writing, even when the good guy loses, he still wins.

Life can’t say the same.

The point of any great dramatic writing isn’t some canned message or ‘good guy always wins’ soma, or even some thinly veiled morality tale/lecture/pontification. Drama—when boiled down to its essence—is to feed the innately illogical and selfish id what it desires.

Entertainment.

But not simply any entertainment. Entertainment that speaks to the primal realms of the mind and offers release. Enter in…PROBLEMS.

A Hero Must Decide

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Ever pay attention to the word ‘decide?’ De-cide. What other words end in ‘cide?’ Homicide, fratricide, sororcide, matricide, herbicide, pesticide, and y’all get the gist. Cide implies killing. Something, someone must die.

When we look to story, this is the point of a solid core story problem, because death is the ultimate objective. I know, I know. Missed my calling writing inspirational greeting cards, but bear with me.

In our last lesson, we unpacked my created literary term Big Boss Troublemaker, which is the BRAIN behind the core story problem in need of resolution. Strong BBTs make for stories that endure because IDEAS are impossible to completely destroy.

Like weeds of the human condition, we might eradicate a problem in one story but then POOF! It pops up again in another. Over and over, again and again.

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This is why there are no new stories, only new ways of telling the same stories. All human stories are about the same things: love, betrayal, greed, acceptance, etc. These are emotional touch-points that imbue story immortality.

Same but Different

This is why Shakespeare’s plays are as relevant today as they were a few hundred years ago. It’s precisely how Baz Luhrmann can take a story about two star-crossed lovers trapped between two feuding families and set it in modern-day Verona Beach…and our brains don’t explode.

We accept Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as Romeo and Juliet. We accept beach duels and gunfights, and John Leguizamo (Tybalt) spouting, ‘Peace? Peace. I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.’ We accept the Montagues and Capulets circa 1996 and oddly? We’re cool.

THIS makes perfect sense….

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

And this…

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

Not only does this make total sense, and speak to our souls…it is AWESOME. Romeo & Juliet is a play that is hundreds of years old, that tells a story we witness every single day. TODAY. We see these same dramas play out in our lives daily, whether in person, on-line or in the news.

The point of any story is the hero (heroine) has no choice but to de-CIDE. Ideas must die or victory is lost. Romeo and Juilet physically die in the end, but the IDEA that love can triumph over hate wins. Granted it’s a Pyhrric victory, but the IDEA that hate is more powerful—that might makes right—is ultimately defeated.

***It also proves Shakespeare’s sardonic point that romantic love leads to terminal stupidity, but that’s another post.

The Problem & Push

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

In any good story there are at least two IDEAS at war, meaning lots and lots of problems. There is the BBT’s (opposition’s) central idea, which will inevitably collide with the protagonist’s central idea.

As we discussed last lesson, ideas are relayed via the corporeal and this happens by proxy.

The proxy has a plan that forces the protagonist out of the comfort zone, and eventually gives the MC no choice but evolution or extinction. It’s do or die, whether that is a physical death, a psychic death, or both.

DEATH is always on the line. Whether we are writing comedy or tragedy, genre fiction or literary this maxim is universally true.

The MC must change internally (the IDEA) as well as externally (behavior), since talk is cheap. Action is what matters, because action is belief made manifest.

Problems at Play

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

Let’s use an example. Today, we’ll look at Zootopia. Sure, it’s a kid’s movie but a fabulous example how we don’t have to be writing HamletThere Will Be Blood, or Glenngarry Glenn Ross to write terrific drama with depth.

Judy Hopps is a bunny who dreams of going off and being a cop in Zootopia, a place where all animals coexist in perfect harmony and are not prejudged based off species or history.

Sure.

Zootopia (like all utopian ideals) is vastly different from the pretty picture, as Judy soon finds out when she enters the police academy. Then she gets an even harder dose of reality as a rookie cop. It is true—Zootopia is a wonder for sure—but it also has its fair share of prejudice, stereotyping, and mistrust.

The BBT is the IDEA that prejudice is inevitable and dangerous and there is only one option—eat or be eaten. Our proxy of this IDEA is the seemingly meekest and most helpless of all creatures—a sheep (Bellwether)—who’s the ‘hapless/spineless’ assistant to Mayor Lionheart (a lion, of course).

Bellwether doesn’t believe prejudice can ever be overcome, that all creatures will eventually resort to their baser natures. As a sheep, her kind have always been prey. Unless she uses her wits, she and her kind will remain perpetually in danger, a permanent menu ‘option.’

Granted, it’s a manufactured danger (neurosis), since predator and prey animals have managed to coexist in Zootopia without anyone being eaten for generations. Yet, her argument is compelling because her belief is grounded in authentic fear.

It is Bellwether’s perceived inevitable reversal that compels her to force ‘fate’s’ hand. She cannot endure the stress that she (and other prey animals) could be the daily special any day. Thus, she takes action to ensure prey animals are in control. TOTAL control.

Great Antagonists Actually Make a Good Point

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

This is what separates deep, layered antagonists (and villains) from caricatures. When we open our minds and think from the opposition’s POV, they kinda make a good point…which is what messes with our heads.

***FYI—Id, being primal and freaky, totally digs mind games and is still unsure if Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a villain or anti-hero. Sure he eats people, but only the ones who kinda deserved it.

Moving on…

Bellwether devises a scheme to ‘prove’ predator animals cannot be trusted, and thus must be contained for obvious public safety reasons. By inflaming deeply held, but politely hidden, beliefs among the animals, she will have all the justification needed to oppress those considered a threat (predators).

In the beginning, Judy Hopps naively believes she’s devoid of prejudice, completely enlightened, and without fear. Predators are not a threat. They don’t view her and her kind as food, but as fellow citizens and friends. All that being hunted and eaten stuff is ancient history.

This is Judy’s IDEA and it cannot help but collide with Bellwether’s IDEA that prejudice is inevitable and dangerous.

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Desperation forces Judy to ally with a fox (historically known for enjoying rabbits as munchies) in order to solve the mystery. Predator animals really are going berserk, seemingly reverting back to their wild natures. Why?

Strong Protagonists Face Personal Extinction

Deep down, Judy believes the animals of Zootopia have evolved and can coexist (though is now facing escalating doubts). Problems bash Judy’s IDEA repeatedly, harder and harder.

A psychic sledgehammer slams into her beliefs, testing their actual strength. No matter what she does or tries, the evidence mounts that she’s delusional.

Everything she sees and experiences only seems to affirm predators are dangerous, cannot be trusted, and must be contained.

The core story PROBLEM—Why are all the predators suddenly going berserk?—gives Judy only two choices. She can give up or be brave and to take a hard honest look at herself.

Is she really as devoid of prejudice as she once believed? Really all that evolved, all that enlightened after all? Or deep down does she actually agree with Bellwether?

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

In the beginning, Judy believed Zootopia was perfect, but by the end of Act 2? Judy doesn’t even know why she’s THERE. All her psychic wounds are open and bleeding.

Eventually the story problem forces Judy to de-CIDE. One idea must die. Either Zootopia dies or the notion that prejudice is inevitable and dangerous must die.

For that to happen, Judy Hopps must expose Bellwether’s true colors and stop her nefarious plan, or Zootopia implodes. The old ways return only the roles reversed (prey in control) and all progress goes up in flames.

À La Fin

narrative structure, novel structure, story structure, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, Big Boss Troublemaker BBT, dramatic writing, problems, how to write fiction, elements of story, how to create conflict in fiction

Both sides, antagonist and protagonist have their own unique IDEA. The story is the crucible that fires out the BS, and reveals truth. Problems batter both sides until one side finally wins. Just as a suggestion, in commercial fiction, it’s a sound plan for the protagonist (hero/heroine) to win. Otherwise it’s called a French film 😛 .

La mort est inévitable. Pourquoi se battre? Boire du vin.

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 15th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. This class is for in-depth training on how to balance all types of antagonists for maximum impact.

What Are Your Thoughts?

I do love hearing from you. Where you struggle, because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of FEBRUARY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below.

NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!

GASKETS & GAITERS: HOW TO CREATE A COMPELLING STEAMPUNK WORLD

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $65 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY February 23, 2018. 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

Who doesn’t love some steampunk cosplay? Corsets, goggles, awesome hats…

Steampunk has become one of the hottest genres today, crossing the lines of YA, NA, and adult fiction. It seems like it’s fun to write because it’s fun to read.

However, there’s a world of difference between the amateur steampunk writer and the professional steampunk author, and the difference lies in the world they create.

Is your steampunk world historically-accurate enough not to jar the reader out of the narrative with anachronisms?

Does your world include paranormal as well as steampunk?

Are the gadgets and level of sophistication in keeping with the technologies available at the time?

Steampunk is not an excuse to take short-cuts with history. Good writing in this genre requires a solid grasp of Victorian culture and history, including the history of science, medicine, and industry.

This shouldn’t scare you off from writing steampunk, but it should encourage you to take this class and learn how to create a world that is accurate, consistent and immersive.

This class will cover a broad range of topics including:

  • Polite Society: Just how prim and Victorian do you want to get?
  • Science, Technology, Medicine, and Industry: How to research these without dying of boredom?
  • Creating the Blend: How to drop in historical details without info-dumping, and how to describe and explain your steampunk innovations without confusing.

GET READY TO ROAR: THE BUSINESS OF THE WRITING BUSINESS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, March 1st, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Being a professional author entails much more than simply writing books. Many emerging authors believe all we need is a completed novel and an agent/readers will come.

There’s a lot more that goes into the writing business…but not nearly as much as some might want us to believe. There’s a fine balance between being educated about business and killing ourselves with so much we do everything but WRITE MORE BOOKS.

This class is to prepare you for the reality of Digital Age Publishing and help you build a foundation that can withstand major upheavals. Beyond the ‘final draft’ what then? What should we be doing while writing the novel?

We are in the Wilderness of Publishing and predators abound. Knowledge is power. We don’t get what we work for, we get what we negotiate. This is to prepare you for success, to help you understand a gamble from a grift a deal from a dud. We will discuss:

  • The Product
  • Agents/Editors
  • Types of Publishing
  • Platform and Brand
  • Marketing and Promotion
  • Making Money
  • Where Writers REALLY Need to Focus

AMATEUR HOUR IS OVER: SELF-PUBLISHING FOR PROFESSIONALS

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $99.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, March 2nd, 2018, 7:00-10:00 p.m. EST

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Are you going to go KDP Select or wide distribution with Smashwords as a distributor? Are you going to use the KDP/CreateSpace ISBN’s or purchase your own package? What BISAC codes have you chosen? What keywords are you going to use to get into your target categories? Who’s your competition, and how are you positioned against them?

Okay, hold on. Breathe. Slow down. I didn’t mean to induce a panic attack. I’m actually here to help.

Beyond just uploading a book to Amazon, there are a lot of tricks of the trade that can help us build our brand, keep our books on the algorithmic radar, and find the readers who will go the distance with us. If getting our books up on Amazon and CreateSpace is ‘Self-Publishing 101,’ then this class is the ‘Self-Publishing senior seminar’ that will help you turn your books into a business and your writing into a long-term career.

Topics include:

  • Competitive research (because publishing is about as friendly as the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones)
  • Distribution decisions (because there’s actually a choice!)
  • Copyright, ISBN’s, intellectual property, and what it actually all means for writers
  • Algorithm magic: keywords, BISAC codes, and meta descriptions made easy
  • Finding the reader (beyond trusting Amazon to deliver them)
  • Demystifying the USA Today and NYT bestselling author titles
  • How to run yourself like a business even when you hate business and can’t math (I can’t math either, so it’s cool)

Yes, this is going to be a 3-hour class because there is SO much to cover…but, like L’Oréal says, you’re worth it! Also, a recording of this class is also included with purchase.

The class includes a workbook that will guide you through everything we talk about from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution, and much, much more!

Time is MONEY, and your time is valuable so this will help you make every moment count…so you can go back to writing GREAT BOOKS.

EVEN MORE CLASSES…

Check them out at W.A.N.A. Int’l.